How did you discover Elizabeth Bentley’s story? How was she similar and different from writing about Alice Roosevelt in American Princess and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in And They Called It Camelot?
I actually came across a reference to Elizabeth Bentley when I was researching Cold War spies and was intrigued by this woman whose story is virtually unknown today. What was interesting to me was that everyone knows about Joseph McCarthy, but his accusations regarding communists infiltrating the U.S. government were based on hot air. Elizabeth Bentley—whose many testimonies were secretly confirmed by the FBI via Project VENONA—was vilified and then forgotten due to the fact that no one could corroborate her accusations and because she was seen as a hysterical, menopausal woman. Project VENONA was declassified in 1995 and now we know the truth of Bentley’s story, which I felt needed to be told.
Elizabeth Bentley’s story was similar to that of Alice Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy’s in that they were all American women who deeply loved their country. The big difference was that Bentley made many choices which at first glance appear the opposite of patriotic—she was an American spying for Russia during World War II, after all!
What inspired you to write a novel about Jackie Kennedy? What drew you to her life and legacy?
As a high school history teacher, I had always associated Jackie with her iconic pink suit and the photograph of her scrambling over the back of the Lincoln Continental limousine moments after JFK had been shot. However, as I began researching her as the potential subject of a novel, I realized that so much of her personal story has been forgotten in the decades since her death. This was a woman who endured so much struggle and loss—most especially the assassination of her husband before her very eyes—and yet, she became the icon for everything that was poised and graceful. While there are countless biographies about Jackie, I wanted to reimagine what it was like to be her, to let readers experience her life unfolding through her own eyes.
What was your inspiration for writing American Princess?
I’ve studied many women from ancient history, be they Egyptian pharaohs or Byzantine empresses, but it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I became fully introduced to the hellion that was Alice Roosevelt. While escorting a group of high school students to Washington D.C., I stumbled upon the picture book Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt. I was shocked that no one had yet written a novel about her! (Of course, I purchased a copy for my daughter, who is now twelve and has firm plans to become the first female president of the United States.) Daughter to one president and cousin to another, wife of a congressman and mistress to a senator, this story of a woman who had such access to Washington’s elite begged to be told.
Do you do a lot of research to write your books?
Yes, so much research! In addition to reading all the non-fiction books listed in the back of American Princess, I spent time in New York and Washington, DC, and was also able to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City, where they have on display the very shirt T. R. was wearing when he was shot in 1912.
Also, you can imagine my glee when I discovered that a large collection of Alice’s papers are now housed in the Library of Congress. It was surreal—and I got a little teary‐eyed—to thumb through diaries she’d written as a young woman. I still can’t believe that all it took was a library card and I was allowed to touch—with bare hands—letters written by Alice, her father, and cousin Eleanor. Many of those sites and sources made it into American Princess!
Do you visit with book clubs?
Absolutely! Due to time constraints and the fact that I love in Alaska, I mostly do virtual book club visits via Zoom. If you’d like to arrange for a visit, please feel free to contact me.